San Francisco police officers keep watch on protesters after police moved in to evict dozens of people that took over a building at the corner of Gough and Turk Streets on April, 2, 2012.
Erik Verduzco / The Chronicle
Facing criticism from a federal court monitor for using “military-type” tactics against Occupy activists, Oakland police changed their strategy during Tuesday’s May Day protests – swooping in on individual suspects instead of making mass arrests, keeping their beanbag guns holstered and using tear gas sparingly.
“This was our attempt to handle things on a smaller scale, in hopes of facilitating the majority’s freedom to assemble,” said Sgt. Christopher Bolton, chief of staff to Police Chief Howard Jordan.
On some levels, the effort appeared to succeed – 39 people were arrested, compared with more than 400 during a January protest, and vandalism was not as widespread as in other large Occupy actions.
Some critics, though, said that the effort fell short and that police had provoked protesters.
In one major shift, police repeatedly sent squads of fewer than a dozen officers into crowds to snatch people suspected of crimes, arrest them and swiftly haul them behind police lines. In earlier protests, officers penned in large crowds and left protesters no escape.
“What we’re seeing is a maturation of their tactics,” said Laleh Behbehanian, a member of Occupy Oakland’s antirepression committee.
“The first lesson that they’ve learned is mass tear gassing is really bad PR,” she said. “Now they’re no longer using indiscriminate force on protesters – that’s how they’re representing it.”
Picking out targeted suspects, however, “can incite a crowd,” Behbehanian said. “People get upset … and (it) creates the opportunity to arrest people on charges of obstruction or lynching,” the legal term for trying to free arrestees.
Of the 39 arrests Tuesday, 27 were for allegedly obstructing police. Seven people were booked on suspicion of failing to disperse from an unlawful assembly. Two people were arrested on suspicion of vandalism, two for allegedly resisting arrest, and one for allegedly violating a restraining order.
Behbehanian said many of those arrested were deeply involved in Occupy, suggesting that police were trying to break up the group’s organizational structure.
The city reported vandalism to several banks and other businesses, and broken windows on a police van. A television news van had its front window smashed and its tires slashed.
Rachel Lederman, a National Lawyers Guild attorney, said at least two protesters had been hurt, including a woman who suffered a serious head injury from a police baton.
Several officers were splattered with paint and targeted by thrown objects, but the department reported no injuries.
In a report released Monday, a monitor overseeing court-ordered police reforms said he was concerned about the use of force and nonlethal weapons on crowds in earlier Occupy protests.
Crowd control policy
The department’s crowd control policy seeks to minimize force used on innocent people in a crowd. It bars the use of beanbags to disperse people and allows tear gas under extremely limited circumstances.
But on Oct. 25, Oakland police repeatedly deployed tear gas and fired beanbags in an effort to clear a crowd that was angry over the sweep of an Occupy encampment outside City Hall. One protester, 24-year-old Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, was struck in the head by a beanbag as he demonstrated peacefully, a near-fatal blow.
On Tuesday, police used no beanbags and only small amounts of tear gas in three skirmishes with protesters. In contrast to past demonstrations in which downtown was enveloped by clouds of the gas, it was possible Tuesday to see and breathe within minutes after the gas was released.
Police used the gas to fend off people trying to stop the targeted arrests, Jordan said. He said that even though the use of small amounts of gas had long been part of the department’s policies, “I don’t recall using that before.”
Some of the decisions made by police Tuesday showed progress, said John Burris, one of two attorneys who brought a civil suit a decade ago that prompted federal court oversight of the department.
“I have no objection to strategic deployment of weapons,” Burris said. “Our big issue has been the general deployment of weapons into a crowd. If a police officer has reason to believe a person has engaged in assaultive conduct, they can employ whatever means they have available to them” to stop the person.
After each targeted arrest Tuesday, including when police ordered protesters to disperse, officers allowed crowds to reassemble at Frank Ogawa Plaza, the protest’s main gathering point.
“They were able to do everything they wanted to do after those arrests were made and after those dispersal orders were made,” said Bolton, Chief Jordan’s chief of staff.
Jordan said another key difference in Tuesday’s police response involved increasing the visibility of uniformed officers. That was driven in part, he said, by the crowd’s early, aggressive tenor.
“We wanted to send a message that we’re not going to tolerate acts of vandalism, violence or any kind of disruption to businesses,” Jordan said.
Matthai Kuruvila and Demian Bulwa are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Twitter: @matthai, @demianbulwa. firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com